A fresh tomato is easily the world's most perfect fruit

Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 2002

One morning last September, while on vacation in Los Angeles, I stumbled upon the weekly Farmer's Market in Hollywood. Ready for breakfast, I pondered the oranges, peaches and berries until I was stopped short by a cart piled high with tomatoes of many colors and sizes.

Juneau Eats

Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. His column appears every Wednesday.

I selected a round bright yellow specimen about the size of a baseball and ate it raw on the spot, its sweet juices dripping off my chin. It was the perfect summer snack.

In supermarkets, tomatoes are available in three major types. Small cherry and grape tomatoes are best eaten raw in any variety of salads. Firmer and less juicy than other types, plum or Roma tomatoes are best for sauces and purees. The common round or beefsteak tomato is the most all-purpose - it is very nice sliced raw, but also cooks well.

Literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes are grown, varying in size from a couple of ounces to two pounds, and coming in all shades of red, yellow, orange and green. Look for brightly colored examples. A good tomato should yield slightly when gently squeezed. It should also have a pleasantly earthy "tomato" aroma. By the time they arrive in Juneau, they will not continue to ripen, so choose carefully. Once you get them home, keep tomatoes at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to a week. But if your're going to eat them raw, let them come to room temperature for the best texture and flavor.

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits. I have enjoyed exploring this aspect of the tomato's personality this summer by combining cherry tomatoes and pitted bing cherries with leafy greens in a balsamic vinaigrette. Sliced tomato with chunks of watermelon and feta cheese is a traditional late summer delight in the Middle East. In her cookbook,"The Last Course," pastry chef Claudia Fleming recommends sautéing sliced tomatoes and plums in caramelized sugar and serving them as a dessert with cheese or ice cream.

At this time of year, I enjoy nothing more than eating tomatoes raw in salads. One of my favorites is a traditional Italian salad made with toasted bread and juicy tomatoes. In addition to being easy and delicious, this simple salad emphasizes two important principles of working with tomatoes. One is that despite what many recipes say, it is rarely worth it to seed or peel tomatoes. The peels are not at all unpleasant, and the sweetly tangy juice that would be lost during seeding is one of the best things about eating tomatoes. The second is that tomatoes love salt. Add it little by little, tasting until you get it right - it will get the tomato's juices flowing, cut through its fleshiness and make the most of its flavor.


Serves 4

Time: 30 minutes

4 slices Italian bread (1/2" thick) or 8 slices baguette

4 medium tomatoes, diced (this is often most easily done using a serrated knife)

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Salt to taste (see above note)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Cut the bread slices into crouton sized pieces and bake in a preheated 450 degree oven until lightly browned and toasted throughout - you may need to turn the pieces once to insure even cooking. Set the pieces aside to cool.

2. While the bread is cooking, toss the remaining ingredients together in a bowl. Allow to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes to a half hour.

3. Add the bread to the tomato mixture, toss and allow to stand for fifteen minutes. Taste for salt and pepper and serve.

Note: there are many delicious possible additions to this salad - minced garlic or onion, capers, anchovies, sliced cucumbers, diced red or yellow bell peppers, chopped basil or parsley, and parmesan cheese all do well here, so feel free to experiment.

Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. Comments or questions about this column may be sent to jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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